Breaking windows at high-rise building fires is not a recommended procedure. Unlike the 1/8-inch-thick window glass in private or multiple dwellings, glass in high-rise buildings can be 1/4 or 1/2-inch thick. Single panes may be four feet by 10 feet and larger and can weigh 25 to 50 pounds. They may be set in aluminum frames that melt during autoexposure.

Broken glass from high-rise buildings can kill or injure passersby or firefighters on the sidewalk below, it can cut supply hoselines. It also can be carried by the wind, landing across the street from the fire building. Firefighters entering a street littered with glass shards must fight to maintain their balance. Glass in the street and on the sidewalk presents a fall hazard as well as the danger of being cut.

The five leading causes of firefighter injuries are:

  • Strains and sprains.
  • Wounds, cuts, and bruises.
  • Smoke and gas inhalation.
  • Burns.
  • Eye injuries.

Falling glass crashing down on the sidewalk or street, in addition to killing a person evacuating the fire building or a firefighter entering it to fight the fire, can injure a firefighter in three of these ways: A strain or sprain could result if a firefighter slips on broken glass pieces; a wound or cut could occur from falling glass shards; and eye injuries could occur if pieces of broken glass ricochet off apparatus or the street.

Falling glass at a high-rise building may be the result of flames, heat, or expansion of fire gases blowing out the windows. Or, people trapped in a fire may smash a window with a chair or other piece of furniture to get fresh air into a room. (This sometimes has the opposite effect.) In rare instances, firefighters may have to vent at a highrise fire. In any case, if any glass window is broken at a high-rise fire, firefighters must remove all the remaining shards or pieces of glass around the frame before leaving the scene.


Before venting a window that cannot be opened or removing glass shards from previously broken glass windows in a high-rise building, notify the officer in charge of the operation. He/she in turn must request permission from the incident commander. Before granting permission, the IC first must clear the sidewalk in front of the fire building of bystanders and firefighters and must protect hose supply lines. This is easier said than done.

If the street is clear of bystanders and firefighters, the chief may order a company to set up fire lines and give the order to remove glass. But this takes time. Remember, venting a window at a high-rise building fire without the approval of the fireground commander can kill a passerby or a firefighter and cut the main supply hoseline to the building.

As one seasoned fire chief told me, “High-rise buildings are like cellar fires; we must extinguish them without ventilation.” Firefighters must suffcr the effects of heat and flame to extinguish a high-rise fire. If there is any indication of a fire on the upper floors of a high-rise building, the firstarriving ladder company should obtain window keys from the building management before going up to fight the fire. Open windows with keys to vent. Do not break windows unless the fireground commander is notified and says that the street is cleared.



At high-rise fires, the fireground commander should designate a fire company to clear the street of people, warn firefighters to withdraw from the collapse danger zone, and protect the supply hoselines from punctures. A company officer assigned by the fireground commander to clear the street in case of possible falling glass should proceed as follows:

  • Find out from the operations officer at the forward command on the upper floors the side of the building that presents the falling glass hazard.
  • Direct one firefighter to clear all people from the sidewalk below the windows and prevent people from
  • walking in front of the building on the exposure A side frontage.
  • Direct another firefighter to clear all people from the sidewalk below the windows and prevent people from walking in front of the building on the exposure B side frontage. (Pump operators are ordered to take cover.)
  • Station another firefighter in the lobby of the building to prevent anyone from leaving the fire building and being struck by glass falling on the sidewalk.
  • Station a firefighter at every entrance door to a store or restaurant facing the street where the falling glass hazard will occur. (More than one company may be needed. )
  • Use a 25-foot by 2-foot blanket of heavy duty protective material to cover the supply hoseline to protect it from falling glass.
  • The vent coordinator then does the following:
  • Takes a position across the street in a doorway or other shelter and notifies the operations officer that the street is clear and that glass removal may begin.
  • Directs firefighters to pull the glass pieces inside the window, not push them outside, as they are removed. Small pieces of glass still may fall out of the window during this process.

Finally, the operations officer notifies the vent coordinator when glass removal has terminated; the vent coordinator opens up the street only after confirmation by the operations officer.

The hazards of falling glass were evident at two of the most serious high-rise fires in recent times: the First Interstate Bank Fire in Los Angeles in 19BB and the One Meridian Plaza fire in Philadelphia in 1991 Falling glass cut supply hoselines leading into the burning buildings. While falling glass is a minor problem compared with all the other problems at these fires, you must realize the potentially deadly effect that a large piece of heavy’, thick, broken glass can have. If you break a window, you could kill a civilian or a firefighter or cut the supply hoseline feeding the attack hoseline.

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